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Sci-fi Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Synopsis (with some spoilers):

Never Let Me Go is the third book of Kazuo Ishiguro dealing with sci-fi subjects. The storyline is highly reminiscent of the thriller movie “The Island” – small wonder a new movie, based on it and starring Keira Knightley, has been shot recently.

The novel is narrated by Kathy H., a thirty-one year old carer, who reminds herself of her school years at Hailsham, spent with her best friends, Ruth and Tommy. She tells us that she recently came back into contact with Ruth, as she became Ruth’s carer after her first donation. We are bound to find the true meaning of this later.

At the beginning Hailsham seems a normal establishment. It is situated amid quiet countryside and its staff consist of caring, good guardians. Soon we find out that the students never go home and are not visited by anyone from the outside world. Then come other puzzles. Why does the Hailsham syllabus place so intense an emphasis on “creativity” of the students? Why does mysterious ‘Madame’ pick up and take away the best art? Where is situated her equally mysterious ‘gallery’? Aren’t weekly medical checks a bit too frequent ? Can it be true that the authorities are so worried about the dangers of smoking that works such as the Sherlock Holmes stories are banned from the library because of their high nicotine content? Why did one of the best teachers, the honest and open Miss Lucy, leave the school rather abruptly?

In their last years at Hailsham, the students are given classes on what was to be expected out in the real world, with special emphasis on sex and social skills. Here the truth about them slowly become clearer. It seems that everyone somehow knew it already BUT they never realized what it really meant. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy leave Hailsham and go to the Cottages where they reside under the watchful eye of an elderly man called Keffers until they are ready to start their training as carers. After that they will become donors. The relationship between the three of them becomes somewhat like a love triangle. Ruth and Tommy are dating openly but deep down Ruth knows that Kathy and Tommy would be more compatible. The friendship between both girls, while superficially tight knit, is in fact rather strained and quite toxic. Ruth is a bossy ‘know-it-all’ type who likes manipulating the others. The trio disintegrate after one explosive afternoon and Kathy doesn’t see Ruth and Tommy again until she becomes Ruth’s carer.


The Hailsham students don’t have any families because they are, in fact, clones of other people (called possibles). They can’t have children either. They were designed to be walking and living organ farms and that was the sole purpose of their rather short existence. Once they end their carers’ career and are called up to start donating, they don’t stop until they ‘complete’. In other words, they donate their organs until there is nothing left or their body can no longer sustain the operations. Those that survive to their fourth donation are treated like heroes. They’ve heard on the grapevine that love – or art, or both – will get you a deferral but nobody really knows any details of such a deal and whether it is true. The likes of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy frighten the rest of normal people. Many believe they have no souls and are simply empty beings. Is it really true?

What I liked:

The plot, while not exactly original, was captivating. Ishiguro’s careful, understated narration focuses on the way young people can make a life out of whatever is on offer. The foreground of the novel is kept busily occupied with the interactions of Kathy with her best friend Ruth and Tommy, the boy both are attracted to. Here Ishiguro sets a cat’s cradle of psychological and emotional tensions which were fascinating – he is the best at it.

Another out-of-the-ordinary feature of this novel is the way the author deals with questions about humanity and humaneness – very difficult questions I must add. I was really fascinated and struck by the whole ethical concept of organ donation, what Kathy, Ruth and Tommy were and how they were treated by ‘normal’ human beings.

What I didn’t like:

Don’t get me wrong – Never Let Me Go is a very unique read and raises many relevant questions. Still, plenty of incredibly fascinating stuff the author left somehow untouched and I really don’t understand why. There is undoubtedly much to say about the ethics of cloning humans for the sole purpose of organ harvesting after all…

I wonder, for instance, why we were never told how all these cloning procedures were invented, organized and performed. Who was exactly chosen as a ‘possible’ (so the model for a clone) and for what reasons? There appears to be no relationship whatsoever between a clone and his/her “original” model – isn’t it rather strange? We are also not told who was responsible for the whole cloning programme- I mean who financed and supervised it. By the way who can afford this kind of medicine in a society the author depicts as no richer, indeed perhaps less rich, than ours? Finally my main problem – why couldn’t the clones, at least some of them, those the smartest or the most adventurous ones (or both), just leave, go away or even go abroad, try to blend in among normal people and avoid their sad fate? What exactly stopped them from leaving? After all the instinct for self preservation, the thirst for knowledge and the curiosity define the human race.The author took a lot of effort to present clones as human beings. As a result, though, his attention remains fixed on intimate things – the small social groupings within a school, the nuances of personal relationships – but the larger world remains a distant, blurred backdrop, and is brought slightly more into focus only at the end. A very depressing end. It’s about knowing that while you must keep calm, keeping calm won’t change a thing.

Ishiguro’s refusal to address questions such as these forces, in my opinion, his story into a pure literary limbo – the book is perhaps intelligent and well-written but still really neither here nor there.

I am also not particularly smitten with the cover…but it is easier to change than the content.

Final verdict

It is an interesting but rather depressing novel – showing the steady erosion of hope. To tell you the truth I felt physically tired after finishing it. If you asked me whether or not I would like to read it again my answer would be a firm “no”. I would rather watch “The Island” for the second time. Call me a shallow being with no intelligence to speak of.


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